Jan. 10 2011 08:02 AM

Robots are leading the way in a dairy automation trend that is clearly headed this way.

Sometimes going far away gives a better look at things back home, as we learned November 16 to 19 at the EuroTier farm show in Hannover, Germany. In this instance the view was of dairy management tools and trends that have already gained a foothold in Europe and seem destined to become a part of U.S. milk producers' future.

With twice the attendance of World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin and one-fourth more exhibitors than at World Ag Expo in California, there were plenty of familiar sights at EuroTier. Dairy hardware, supplies and accessories were endless and were mostly geared for small and medium-size operations that also hit the "sweet spot" of U.S. dairy demographics.

The U.S. has big farm shows, but EuroTier takes things to a different level. It starts with the setting, which looks similar but is entirely different. All 1,939 exhibits at this year's semi-annual event were, as always, indoors. Comfort for the record 140,000 visitors was enhanced by carpeted traffic areas, coat check facilities, and cafe-like concession areas. Because it is a diversified ag show, livestock species and farming interests are separated into nine different exhibit buildings, many of them as big as airport terminals. Dairy and beef cattle were again the largest part of the show, and occupied two of them.

Trade show booths are often as much about showing off companies as they are about showing off products, and in this regard EuroTier goes way over the top, sometimes wildly so, in fact. Minimum booth size is 10'x10', but it was hard to find any. Most were several times larger, and a couple were so staggeringly huge that all we could do was take wild guesses.

As for the displays themselves, in a few extreme cases "elaborate" fell short in describing them. Lights, TVs, and music? Of course. Tables, chairs, and flowers? Ho-hum. Multi-story displays? Sure. Pretty young women to attract attention? Quite a few of them. But how about seating areas inside booths that feature beverage and food service? That's something we haven't seen in Madison or Tulare yet.

Robots, robots, robots
There were two overwhelming impressions we took home from EuroTier: The pace of automation in the dairy industry is increasing; and "the robots are coming."

That Europe is a driving force behind both isn't surprising, given an ag labor situation that is even more serious than what U.S. farmers face. Immigration issues may be a challenge here, but many European farmers can't find anyone to hire. The response is to automate everything possible, and in ever more cases that means robots.

In some countries robotic units now account for half of all new milking installations, and we counted six different brands at EuroTier. Attachment times are gradually dropping, reliability is increasing, and after 18 years on the market they are firmly established on the dairy landscape.

New advances in the technology were displayed in the form of a two-stall milking unit served by one attachment arm, and a fully automated rotary parlor with up to 24 stalls that can milk 800 cows twice per day was announced for European availability in 2011. It is not expected to come to the U.S. before 2015, however.

Smaller examples of robotic technology also abounded at the show in the form of automated feeders, bunk pushers, teat sprayers, and manure scrapers for slatted floor barns. Cows will remain cows forever, but it is clear that the tedious chores required to care for them will continue to be automated for dairy producers' benefit.